As a former racing driver, Formula 1 team boss and dealer in high-value classic cars, Colin Crabbe has plenty of stories to tell. Jon Sandall spoke to him about his new autobiography
“My father was a great car lover and when I was a boy he had expensive Jensens and Bristols’, begins 74-year-old Colin Crabbe when reflecting upon his childhood.
“In 1956, he turned up to my school sports day in a D-Type Jaguar. That car had just won Le Mans and he had one of the first production models. Everyone’s jaws just dropped. I was a hero for weeks.
“It could do 150mph and we used to go flat-out across the Yorkshire Moors. It didn’t have a proper windscreen and we were going so fast I could hardly breathe. That put a love of cars in me that I’ve had for my whole life.”
Colin, who lives in Baston with wife Fiona, went on to have a fascinating career which saw him race sports cars at events around the world, launch his own Formula 1 team and track down, buy and restore some of the world’s most exclusive motor vehicles.
As his autobiography goes on sale this week, Colin talked the Mercury through some of his highlights.
Born in London to parents Archie and Yvette, Colin moved to Aberdeenshire at the age of two.
Archie was a career soldier but had plenty of money because his family owned the whisky distiller Crabbie’s – perhaps now better known for its alcoholic ginger beers and for being the sponsor of the Grand National.
The Crabbie name was changed to Crabbe by an ancestor of Colin’s who was refused membership of an exclusive members club in Edinburgh in the early 1900s because he was “trade”.
Educated at Ampleforth College, in Yorkshire, and later the University of Edinburgh, where he studied archaeology, Colin spent three years in the Scots Guards before going travelling in Australia.
While there, he came across a three-year-old Maserati which he brought back to the UK and used to compete in sports car races – his first being at Goodwood in 1964.
Colin decided to buy a business and looked for the cheapest garage on sale in Great Britain. He found one in Main Street, Baston and paid £5,000 for the business – which he named Antique Automobiles – plus a house in the village.
“I was running the business and racing at the same time,” said Colin. “I got involved in international GT racing and Aston Martin club racing.
“I did a stint in big GT cars and then bought an old Cooper Maserati for £3,000 – an ex-F1 car. It came with four spare engines.
“Soon afterwards I got a letter from the Automobile Club of Monaco asking if I’d like to enter the Grand Prix.”
Colin recruited engineers who had previously worked for British Racing Motors in Bourne.
His team, also called Antique Automobiles, acquired a McLaren M7 with a V8 Cosworth engine.
The team entered 17 races between 1969 and 1970, with drivers Vic Elford, Ronnie Peterson and Neil Corner.
Colin was one of the last privateers in Formula 1, alongside Baron Hesketh.
Following his foray into the world of Formula 1, he decided to step up his hunt for forgotten and unloved sports cars which could be returned to their former glory.
Colin said: “In those days, at the end of the racing season a lot of cars were taken to the southern hemisphere to continue racing in places like Australia, Brazil and Argentina.
“I’d fly out there, speak to local drivers and those in the know and track down the forgotten gems. They’d tell you about old Maseratis, Alfa Romeos and Ferraris.
“I used to fly from Paris to Rio on Concorde. It only took six hours.”
In 1978, Colin, who has two adult children and four grandchildren, made one of his most extravagant purchases. He bought a former works Ferrari racing car for around £400,000 in Brazil.
He later made six trips to Cuba which had been a wealthy country prior to the revolution in the 1950s and was escorted by a chauffeur and a gun-wielding official as he travelled around buying up around 30 old classics.
During his career, Colin bought more than 200 prestige cars from locations including Ethiopa, Egypt and South Africa.
In the 1990s, he spent three years as the head of the motoring department at auction house Christie’s, in London.
Today, he drives a modern BMW with hand controls because he still suffers with mobility problems which began when he broke his pelvis and all of his ribs in a crash in 1988 at Oulton Park while racing a Talbot Largo.
“I’ve owned a lot cars over the years, some of which would now be worth millions, but I don’t regret selling any of them,” he said.
“I’ve had a great life – a hobby which I loved turned into an amazing career. I was very lucky.”
Colin ran Antique Automobiles in Baston for 50 years, selling up about 10 years ago. Today it is called Chapel Motors.
lColin’s 450-page autobiography, Thrill of the Chase, published by US-based Dalton Watson Fine Boooks, is available to pre-order at http://goo.gl/1u9anC
It will also be sold in the UK via Chater’s Motoring Booksellers.